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First solicitor to qualify through equivalent means speaks to SJ

Successful applicant spent five years as a paralegal and completed LPC at the University of Law

15 April 2015

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Successful applicant spent five years as a paralegal and completed LPC at the University of Law

The first solicitor to qualify through equivalent means has today been admitted to the profession by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).

After studying the LLB at the University of Essex, Robert Houchill spent five years practising law in a paralegal capacity, first at the UK's leading legal charity, Coram Children's Legal Centre, before moving onto publicly funded work at Wilson Solicitors, and then specialist immigration firm, Gherson. His present position is as a senior paralegal at commercial City firm, Bates Wells and Braithwaite.

Qualification through equivalent means, dubbed the 'paralegal shortcut', was one of the first reforms introduced in 2014 by the SRA as part of the Training for Tomorrow programme. It allows those who have obtained legal which equates to the requirements of a training contract, now called a 'formal period of recognised training.'

Speaking to Solicitors Journal, Houchill confirmed he had undertaken the Legal Practice Course (LPC) at the University of Law in Bloomsbury, London, and said he was confident that while working at Wilson and Gherson he'd receive a training contract somewhere down the line. Not until the SRA's new training regime was published, however, did he consider equivalent means qualification, and decided to 'give it a go'.

'I only ever made one year of concerted effort to get a training contract,' said Houchill, 'the year I came back [from travelling]', which was in 2010.

'I only had a couple of telephone interviews and targeted a few firms. I then thought a quicker route in would be working as a paralegal,' he said.

Houchill also commented that qualification through equivalent means was not necessarily stressful, but administratively heavy.

'I put it in [the application] and forgot about it. It takes a lot of getting stuff together - the form is quite dense, you have to detail what you've done and get references and documents which prove you've been in employment. It took a fair bit of preparation to get the application form together, although the people I've worked with in the past were very prompt.'

When asked if it worked in his favour to have good references, Houchill agreed: 'How would [the SRA] process the applications if they didn't have references? I wonder whether the SRA would process applications without them.'

Despite having been admitted to the profession, Houchill is still not technically a solicitor and won't be until he acquires a position as one. Until successful equivalent means applicants attain such roles, they are much the same as trainees who have not been retained by their firm. Houchill, however, says he is comfortable with his 'limbo' career status for the moment, because it came about so quickly.

But does Houchill think equivalent means status will replace the orthodox LLB-LPC-training contract route into the profession? 'Because it's so fresh, firms may not recruit equivalent means candidates. I don't know how other firms will respond, especially conservative ones, which could see candidates as 'lesser solicitors'. The success of the scheme will be convincing firms that that is not the case.

'I don't think they'll get rid of training contracts, but [equivalent means] might become much more popular. I still think firms are going to prefer training contracts and having trainees. Certainly there are more people coming [into the profession]; there are less training contracts; paralegals might have problems meeting the requirements.

Houchill envisages that there will be an immediate 'trickle' of people qualifying through equivalent means, but that over the next year that could become more of a flow.

Houchill also believes the work he has performed as a paralegal is equal to that of a trainee, a gripe many junior lawyers have, but that there were drawbacks in working in so few areas.

'I feel that the experiences or the things I'd done as a paralegal were equal to those that a trainee had been doing. It's an unfair comparison because I've been in three areas in law, but I've accumulated a lot more experience. I'm much better in the area that I work in; the only disadvantage, potentially, is that you don't get exposed to as many areas of law, but there are training contracts being offered in one area of law, but which are split into three seats.'

Laura Clenshaw is managing editor of Solicitors Journal and editor of Young Lawyer

@SJ_weekly | @YLawyer

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